The Strange Case of Mr Esther Rantzen and the Demon Headmaster.
John Rimmer

First published in Magonia 66, March 1999 as “Ah yes, I remember it… Well…?”

For well over twenty years Esther Rantzen has been a dominant figure in British television, at one time being spoken of as a possible candidate for the post of Director-General of the BBC, although her star has declined recently. In the 1970′s her programme That’s Life was the top-rated non-soap programme on BBC television. With its combination of consumer campaigning and a seemingly endless search for phalliclly-shaped root vegetables, it became a pioneer of ‘victim television’ in this country. Amongst its many campaigns it took on the issues of bullying at school, and ME. 

In recent years it has emerged that Esther Rantzen’s daughter is an ME sufferer. And now, according to a newspaper story last year, Rantzen’s husband, the television producer and broadcaster Desmond Wilcox was allegedly a victim of school bullying. In November newspapers carried a story that at the launch of a telephone helpline for stammerers Wilcox revealed that he too had been a stammerer when a boy at Cheltenham Grammar School. 

“Stammering was the first disabling condition of my life”, he is reported as saying (Daily Telegraph, Friday, November 13th., 1998). 

“I stammered so badly until the age of thirteen that I was almost locked into silence. It was wartime and very little sympathy was available. He then went on to make a remarkable allegation: “The onlyteachers who were left behind were women who had not volunteered and men who were drunk and a Jesuit priest who was the headmaster. 

“I can’t remember his name but I have his face in my mind. I don’t know why I’m protecting him or the others as it is more than they offered me … The school I was at thought stammering could be beaten out of people. I held the record for the number of times I was caned. The headmaster was the beater but it was not unusual in those days to be caned. As a stammerer you were thought of as a malingerer and a faker.” 

A deplorable story, and it is certainly true that many children have been put through an experience of total misery by parents and schoolteachers who have thought that stammering could be cured by such crude methods. The only problem with Wilcox’s experiences though, is that they appear never to have happened. Three days (16th November) later this account of life at Cheltenham Grammar School was challenged in the correspondence column of the Daily Telegraph by another Old Boy, a Mr Peter James of Cheltenham: 

“Sir – Desmond Wilcox’s claim to have been beaten by the Jesuit headmaster of Cheltenham Grammar School in the 1940′s for stammering must be a mental aberration. the Headmaster at the time, Geoffrey Heywood, was a gentle caring man who led a dedicated staff and was certainly no Jesuit. For the sake of surviving teachers and their families, Mr Wilcox should think again.” 

The next day the Telegraph returned to the subject. In a piece by their entertainment reporter Jessica Callan (chosen to cover the story presumably on the basis of Wilcox’s occupation) more Old Boys and teachers challenged Wilcox’s version of events. Bob Beale, the school’s deputy Head from 1976 to 1986 told the Telegraph that many former pupils and teachers were upset by the allegations: 

“It has caused a lot of distress. He mentioned that there were drunken staff during his time but there was only one teacher, a botanist, who liked to drink. He was never drunk during the school day but he was quickly removed from his part-time post. I don’t know what Mr Wilcox is thinking of.” 

Others recalled that the headmaster, Mr Heywood, was the very opposite of the enthusiastic beater Wilcox described, and was not a Jesuit. In the letters column of the 19th November more former pupils join in to defend Mr Heywood. After pointing out that the headmaster before Heywood, and well before Wilcox’s time at the school, was a strict disciplinarian, Lord Christopher of Leckhampton recalls: 

“As a disciplinarian Geoffrey Heywood was the other side of the coin. If he had a weakness it was perhaps that he was not quite hard enough on us. His toughest punishment was a letter to one’s parents suggesting that the school and his son were wasting each other’s time.” 

Another correspondent denied that the headmaster at the time was a Jesuit, noting: 

“Geoffrey Heywood was a caring headmaster, an active member of the Church of England, who must have been proud of the excellent academic record of his school” 

A retired physics teacher, Julia Edwards also dismissed the claims, saying “The headmaster certainly was not a Jesuit. I can safely say no teachers were drunk when I was there. It was an excellent school”. (The suggestion that the teacher was a Jesuit is interesting, as in largely Protestant Britain Jesuits have a sinister reputation as teachers, brainwashing the children in their charge into an unquestioning Catholicism: “Give me a child until he is seven…”, etc. and many people would readily accept that a Jesuit would behave in such a way.) 

However, despite this flood of contrary memories Wilcox was sticking to his side of the story. In his conversation with Jessica Callan he denied that his recollections were at fault: 

“I am afraid my experience was one I remember vividly as you might imagine. The headmaster wasn’t Geoffrey Heywood. I can’t remember his name and wasn’t in a position to remember it at the time. My memory is my memory. He didn’t wear Jesuit robes. He may have been trained by Jesuits, but he was fond of telling us he was a Jesuit, which is why I remember it clearly. I don’t think many schoolboys can remember the name of their headmaster 50 years later.” 

He then makes the very significant remark that “no-one invents this kind of experience from their childhood.” 

Apart from the fact that I think many schoolboys (and girls) can remember the name of their headmaster fifty years later (a point that a number of other Telegraph readers made – in my case, L. W. Warren, Alsop High School, Liverpool, 1955 – 1959) it is certainly true, as any Magonia reader knows, that people do “invent that kind of experience from their childhood”; in many cases experiences far more remarkable and traumatising than being caned by a drunken Jesuit. Wilcox, like many others, fails to distinguish between ‘inventions’ that are the deliberate work of the conscious mind, and unwitting ‘inventions’ that arise through complex and hidden psychological processes. 

One of the factors behind such processes is that we are increasingly living in a victim culture, where being victimised is seen as in itself conveying some sort of moral authority. This is an attitude which Desmond Wilcox’s wife Esther Rantzen has probably done more to promote in Britain than almost anyone else. The essence of victim culture is that any of the many misfortunes of life are the fault of someone else: parents, teachers, the government, authority figures of one kind or another. Being a victim also delegitimises any criticism or examination of the claims of victimhood. We see this in the protests of ‘victims’ of alien abduction and their investigator/promoters, that their claims are not amenable to critical examination, and that any attempt at sceptical analysis simply prolongs their ‘abuse’ at the hands of the aliens. This reached its obscene apotheosis in Budd Hopkins’ declaration in Intruders that rejection of the claims of alien abduction was comparable to Holocaust denial.

Being a victim also allows you to identify with others who perhaps have more justifiable claims on that status. Wilcox’s apparently quite genuine childhood stammering did not prevent him from becoming a successful television presenter, a role in which it is rather difficult to appear as a victim. Now we must assume that Mr Wilcox has not just made up his memory of traumatic schooldays – we would soon be hearing from Messrs Sue, Grabbitt and Runne if we assumed otherwise – as apart from anything else it would be foolish to invent a scenario which could be so easily checked. So obviously he does genuinely believe that these beatings happened, just as many people believe they are victims of violent Satanic abuse or UFO abductions. 

This was not a memory induced by hypnotic regression or prolonged interviewing by an obsessed therapist, but it appears to be as false as those that are. In the context in which Desmond Wilcox ‘recalled’ these events it clearly helped him to empathise with those suffering from stammering who would make use of the helpline he was inaugurating. It could be that an identification with a successful public figure who had undergone a traumatic experience as a result of stammering and had ‘survived’ and ‘recovered’ would encourage other sufferers to come forward who would not otherwise have done so. It could seem that if these memories were unconsciously fabricated the motivation behind that process might have been to identify with and help stammerers; a few uneasy memories, misplaced recollections and overwrought might-have-beens were woven together to produce a moral fable with Wilcox as the hero overcoming misfortune and an example to other victims. 

However, the Daily Telegraph’s conclusion, in an Editorial on 18th November was not so accommodating. Drawing a comparison between Wilcox and disgraced MP Ron Davies of Clapham Common infamy, it concluded: 

“Ron Davies denounced his violent father before the Commons, and justified his own misconduct with the all-purpose excuse ‘we are what we are’. So to Mr Wilcox: ‘My memory is my memory’. That might be a suitable motto for Mr Wilcox, but the desire to be seen as a victim of child abuse does not make the claim true … Mr Wilcox is not the first to demonise a headmaster. What is new is the therapeutic maligning of the dead in the name of self-righteous, self-validating memory. Perhaps we need a new term for cases like Mr Wilcox’s: recovered psychobabble syndrome.”



One thought on “The Strange Case of Mr Esther Rantzen and the Demon Headmaster.
John Rimmer

  1. I very much enjoyed the ‘Demon headmaster’ piece regarding Desmond Wilcox’s schooldays when it went up the other day – somehow I seem to have missed reading it first time around.

    Oddly enough, today’s Daily Telegraph book reviews section contains two very similar accounts in Nicholas Shakespeare’s review of a new Chaplin biography.

    “Chaplin was not the only Hollywood actor to adopt a protective mask…” writes Shakespeare. “Merle Oberon, born in Bombay, to disguise her Eurasian blood… had to memorise a biography concocted for her by Alexander Korda, in which she was born in Tasmania, the daughter of a dashing English major who died in a horse-riding accident (sometimes it was pneumonia)… When confronted on her sole visit to tasmania at the end of her life by people saying that they had been at school with her in Hobart, she fainted. Likewise, Chaplin, on his triumphant return to London in 1921 as ‘the most famous man in the world’ stirred up excessive and vivid memories in a Mr TA Murch, the headmaster of a school in Kennington, who well remembered teaching young “Charlie” there between 1904 and 1909. Except that Chaplin had attended another school altogether, in Hanwell.” (D. Tel. 7 March 2009)

    The subject of false memories of schooldays would plainly repay further study.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>